Thursday, August 28, 2008
Mary Ann Glendon, US Ambassador to the Holy See, addressed us on the Pope’s talk to the United Nations earlier this year. She said she witnessed the standing ovation for the Pope at the UN, but the message was complex and needs to be unpacked.
The Pope’s approach was to offer friendly encouragement to the UN. In 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in Paris. Cardinal Roncalli, later John XXIII, praised this work, as did John Paul II later; the latter called it the highest expression of human conscience of our times. The potential for peaceful change was seen in Eastern Europe and South Africa.
In 1998 John Paul II saw two shadows over this Declaration, at Beijing and Cairo. Human rights is the common language of international relations. But the more human rights gains power, the more intense the effort to capture this power toward other ends.
In 1948, people scoffed at the idea that words could change the world. In 1989, words of truth changed the world. [The Berlin wall came down.] Good and evil was called by name. Vaclav Havel was a man of words, an artist, but he also worried about the power of words to be used as lethal arrows. A noble enterprise can take the wrong turn. The Human Rights project is so powerful it could be turned against the person.
Pope Benedict XVI praised the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for putting the person at the heart of the institution. But he pointed out fully nine warnings at the heart of the institution, nine dilemmas more acute as human rights advances.
1. Cultural relativism
3. Problem of Foundations
5. Selective approach to rights
6. Escalating new rights
8. Relationship of rights and responsibilities
9. Threat to religious freedom by dogmatic secularism
1. Cultural specificity can be used to hide behind vs. legitimate cultural pluralism. The inculturation of the Catholic church in various cultures has shown an accumulated experience which is not in opposition to rights and cultural underpinnings. On the other hand, the rise of cultural imperialism characterizes the professional international institutions which can be insensitive to local particularities.
2. The critique of positivism. Justice is denied when legality is divorced from its ethical foundation. The American founds of the Declaration of Independence acknowledged that rights are not erected by government, but are pre-political. Hamilton stated that the sacred rights of man are not found in old parchments but are written in human nature by the divinity.
Human rights come from laws discovered by reason and experience. To remove them from their context risks them. These laws are extremely important, as found in the Declaration of Human Rights. They are hard-won cultural achievements which are fragile in the postmodern world.
3. Foundations: Philosophical relativism is in the popular culture. Values are just preferences. There are no common truths. How can we uphold universal rights. Czeslaw Milosz said the fate of the old repertoire of the rights of man is beside an abyss, without religion how will they last?
Benedict XVI emphasizes reason and experience. But who decides? Liberal democracies depend on separation of powers, checks and balances, an 18th century European invention designed to govern large groups of people in freedom.
4. Another problem of foundations is utilitarianism, which seeks the greatest good for the greatest number. But this puts at risk the weakest members of society and can become just the will of the stronger.
5. Fundamental human rights can be treated with selectivity, with a menu of favorites while others are flaunted. For 60 years, the Holy See has been the biggest supporters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, providing for marriage, family, parental rights, religious freedom.
6. There is the pressure to expand the category of universal rights. The category can’t be closed as new situations arise, but there are more goods and desires which some demand to become universal rights. This trivializes core needs. They are agenda items. The Pope called for great discernment for legitimate vs. illegitimate new rights. The way to discern is to see what is healthy vs. harmful, and to see that these rights don’t privilege some groups.
7. The individualist approach denies the social dimension. Rights and duties come from human interaction, from solidarity in society. What are the assumptions about persons and their relationship to society? De Tocqueville predicted a new form of the despotism of the individual withdrawn into themselves and their banal pleasures.
8. Does a right recognize responsibility? A correlation between rights and duties is necessary.
9. The threat to religious freedom by dogmatic secularism, which insists on keeping religion from public life. This ignores the Biblical roots of modernity.
The positive answer from the Pope comes elsewhere in his writings, particularly in the address for La Sapienza to the legal faculty on juridical norms for dignity and human rights. The argument from the majority means that sensitivity to truth can be overruled by self-interest.
What is truth? That was the dilemma of Pontius Pilate. The Pope did not answer for them, but offered an invitation to search for the truth, to join the journey with the great ones with a restlessness for truth which beckons beyond an individual answer.
An 18 year old on another occasion asked the Pope this question. There are only two options. To recognize the priority of Reason at the beginning of all things, or to recognize the priority of the irrational where everything in life is accidental. The great option of Christianity is recognizing rationality and giving priority to reason.
The applications to the Human Rights Project show that self-serving tendencies to freedom are not the whole story. We have the same freedom to be protagonists, not nobodies. This should inspire us to decisive action so that we can help shift probabilities in favor of human dignity. In Spe Salvi, the Pope said that every new generation as the task to find the right way to order human affairs. The stakes are high, but can we embrace the task and accept the challenges.